CD Review: Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 1

String Quartet No 1  Flux QuartetReviewing recordings of Morton Feldman’s late works is never easy. With works that are often more than an hour long — some four, even six hours — it’s hard to judge the overall character of a performance or recording, and especially hard to compare recordings by different artists. This is the third recording of Feldman’s first string quartet; the Group for Contemporary Music has recorded it for Naxos, and the Ives Ensemble recorded it for HatHut. Both of these recordings were limited by the timing of a single CD; the Group for Contemporary Music’s recording is 78:33, and the Ives Ensemble plays the work in 76:57.

The Flux Quartet, however, gets all the time they need, playing it at nearly 100 minutes. (, Amazon UK) Why so much longer? The liner notes give no explanation, but in researching this review, it seems that the Flux Quartet respects the composer’s tempi, and, above all, plays all the repeats. I only have the recording by the Group for Contemporary Music, and the tempo doesn’t seem that different; however, if there are repeats, and the Flux Quartet is playing them, then this recording is clearly closest to Feldman’s intentions.

This is the first of Feldman’s long works, and, as such, bears the characteristics that he would develop in later works, notably those for keyboard (For Bunita Marcus, Triadic Memories), ensemble (For Philip Guston, Crippled Symmetry), or for other groups of instruments. These works generally feature short melodic motives that breathe; they come and go, they repeat in different ways as they vary; they return at various points of the work, in different rhythms, different tonalities. Much of this music is dissonant, but I find it to be a relaxing dissonance; it comes as intervals and chords, in brief passages, rather than in an Ivesian onslaught.

This string quartet fascinates, in part because it is perpetually asking questions. Rather than following a path that leads to a clear musical discourse, it constantly suggests potential music, sometimes following up on those suggestions, sometimes quickly aborting after a brief phrase and moving on to something new. The work begins with a few brief chords that sound like breaths, one slightly dissonant, the next with an added layer of dissonance, and the following chords moving away from and back toward that dissonance; and the work ends with some sustained notes that suggest that the questions haven’t been answered, but that it’s the journey that counts, not the result. The Flux Quartet gives a fine reading of this work, and the recording quality is excellent, allowing the listener to be absorbed by the music.

In addition to String Quartet No 1, there are four earlier works, from the 1950s. These works are not that different from the longer works; the techniques used are similar, without the sparseness of the later work.

Listening to String Quartet No 1– and to other pieces by Morton Feldman — raises one problem: that of volume. It seems that this score is marked ppp and ppppp, but how does a listener know what volume this should be? If you’re listening to, say, a Haydn or Schubert string quartet, you can adjust the volume to an approximate level, based on your listening comfort. But with Feldman’s quiet works, there’s no way to know exactly how to listen. If you’re listening on headphones, you can turn the volume down a great deal, but on speakers it’s a bit more difficult to find the correct level. This makes me think of recordings of the clavichord; this quiet instrument can be heard easily by a performer, but if you’re more than a few feet away, it’s hard to hear the notes. Should one set the volume to hear everything, or should the listener allow some of the music to stay in the background?

This set contains String Quartet No 1 on one and a half CDs, and also contains a DVD-Audio with the entire work, so you can listen to it without changing discs. (Of course, if you rip music to your computer, you can play it from the ripped files without any pause.) The DVD-A contains both a 24-bit stereo and a surround sound mix; I don’t have surround sound, so I can’t comment on the quality of that mix.

While price is not the main criterion for choosing one recording over another, it’s worth pointing out that this release is fairly expensive, selling for £33 at the time of this writing. (The Ives Ensemble’s recording is £20, and the Group for Contemporary Music’s disc less than £6.) This is, in part, because of the additional DVD-A. While it’s nice to have both versions, Mode Records might have considered two different releases, one with and one without the DVD-A; or, as they did with the String Quartet No 2, release the DVD-A separately for those who want it.

If you are a Feldman aficionado, you’ll want this recording, if only because it presents the entire quartet with all repeats, as Feldman intended. But if you’re new to Feldman’s music, the Naxos recording by the Group for Contemporary Music is a great place to start at a budget price.